Illegal fishing has been practised in lakes, rivers and dams across Tanzania for as long as one can remember. It is endemic in virtually all major lakes – Victoria, Tanganyika and Nyasa – but even smaller lakes such as Rukwa as well as dams such as Nyumba ya Mungu in Kilimanjaro Region and Mindu in Morogoro Region are not spared the menace.
There is a wide range of the forms of illegal fishing commonly at play, but those most people engage in include dynamite fishing, poison-aided fishing and the use of nets that literally sweep water reservoirs clean of even the smallest or youngest of fish species.
Even worse, some fishermen undertake expeditions so vicious and are so insensitive to calls to safeguard the environment that they don’t seem to worry even after finding that the gear and methods they use endanger even their very own survival.
As noted, illegal fishing is a decades-old trade perpetrated mainly by communities of mostly small-time fishermen but accounting for the survival and development of many more individuals, households and communities.
Things used to be bad even the relatively good old days when fishing was mainly small-scale and meant to cater for consumers at the household level. But with the advent of commercial fishing, complete with processing plants to be found wherever huge fish catches are available, the problem has gradually degenerated into not only a disaster but a catastrophe.
Anyone doubting this should make a comparative analysis of the number, size and species of fish caught and sold for both home or industrial use, say, during the 1960s to 1980s as against the situation as currently obtains.
We know that occasional deployment of marine police officers and extension personnel dispatched by the government’s Fisheries Division has helped in easing the havoc resulting from illegal fishing.
Yet, factors such as poor facilities, corruption, lack of support from local government officials and reluctance by members of households and communities to name confirmed culprits have always sabotaged efforts to deal the menace of illegal fishing a death blow.
For instance, most missions by environmental and other journalists seeking to establish the magnitude of the problem have often yielded little fruit, the main explanation being that many “eyewitnesses” fear that they could up paying heavily if they volunteer any incriminating clues about suspects.
This is especially true for residents of villages on the shores of Lake Victoria, a lake once teeming with numerous fish of all species but now all but a pale shadow of itself.
But on second thoughts, is illegal fishing really impossible to contain – even if we were to deploy more law-enforcement agents, including riot police and even the Army? Considering the gravity of the problem and the long-term consequences the crime is sure to have, would anyone dare say that would be going too far?
A softer approach would be ensuring that we have laws, rules and regulations much less tolerant of illegal fishing than the ones now in place – but when will that be? It’s an idea worth considering. Still, we need to know that time is not on our side.